By Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES – Even though we are accustomed to different crisis, the new COVID-19 pandemic is quite frightening. Converted into figures, thousands of people have lost their lives and thousands of other people are fighting the virus in different ways. I tremble every day when I see the numbers go up, and I feel tiny in the face of the uncertainty of our near future.
Nearly everyone in my family is in one of the highest risk groups, and most of my friends are living outside of Cuba, so I have good reason to worry.
Many people believe that humanity will be different from now on. I would like to share this optimism, but reality is a slap in the face. In order for humanity to be different, we would have to renounce everything that has marked us as a civilization up until today, everything that has allowed us to “grow” and made us sick: ideas of progress and supremacy. And that’s not going to happen. What people want is for this tough time to be over with so that we can get back to our lives before Coronavirus.
I have told myself not to think too much about what might happen to my loved ones, because I can’t do a lot to change things. Amidst the collective frenzy we are living in, I walk down Alamar’s streets in search of essential provisions and I admit that I am also heading towards crowds to see what people are really thinking.
It’s in Cuba’s lines that you get an idea of how heated the situation is. There, people talk, vent and analyze things from their own point of view without any regard for what other people think. That’s how I ended up at Falcon, the department store in Alamar.
The young woman in the blue shirt had been waiting 30 minutes under the scorching sun, in line to buy chicken which is long and slow. The truck still hadn’t finished unloading the boxes; then they have to count them and then they can sell. The line will have grown much longer by that time. The young woman had left her two children at home, the oldest one called her on the cellphone to ask when she was coming back. Hot and bothered, she replied: I’m not out here playing, I’m trying to get us food.
The government has decided that children shouldn’t be out on the streets; classes being suspended doesn’t mean that we are on school holidays, they said. So, single mothers living alone have a great dilemma when it comes to grocery shopping.
People realize that the truck only unloaded one box, it’s bullshit, an old woman said who had her face covered with a yellow handkerchief. The improvised mask kept slipping down and she kept putting it straight without the slightest bit of precaution, even though they are constantly telling us on TV how to handle our masks so we don’t get infected.
I take my place in line, there is toilet paper, another highly-sought after product. Nearly everyone is wearing a mask, a friend tells me that it is strange not knowing whether the person is smiling or making a funny face behind the mask; but it would be worse not being able to look a person in the eyes, I say, and a woman shoots me a look while angrily shouting: this virus is worse, it has come to ruin everything.
Behind us, a man replies: “that’s not true, here we have been desperate for a long time, we are constantly in a hole.” And then some people turn to the man and tell him that we are OK, that things are really bad in the US, that people are dying in heaps, that thousands of people are sick and can’t receive medical care, that old people are being left to die in Europe and that there are dead bodies lying in homes and out on the street in Ecuador, etc.
While they are shouting, they move forward, nearly all the women gesticulate as if they were waving a machete, every one of them trying to be heard, attacking the man who tries to defend his point of view: “but, look here, why are we here in this crowd? because there isn’t any food? who is lining up? Because I don’t see any [Communist] party representatives here, and it’s been like this since the day I was born, it isn’t because of the Coronavirus.
A couple of police officers standing on the sidewalk opposite us is supposed to be making sure that people respect the established distance between one another, but this time they are chatting quite happily, greeting some friends and ignoring what is happening in the crowd.
That’s when somebody announces that toilet paper has run out and people begin to disperse, protesting… this time they shout out to the wind, you can hear things like: this is miserable; I don’t know how long we’re going to carry on like this; there is no peace of mind in this country, when it’s not one thing, it’s another; etc. The same people who were telling the man off, are now shouting at nobody.
Stay at home is the advice that is not only taking over social media and the general press, but people on the street are also saying it. From what’s happened elsewhere in the world, we know that it is better to minimize the transmission of the virus, but that is no easy task in a country where people have to go out every day to get the bare essentials.
A relative in Regla spent all morning – he left at 7 AM and only got back home at 1 PM – to buy hamburgers and minced meat. After waiting so long, he could only take one packet of each. There isn’t a lot available, so they’ve limited how many packets people can buy otherwise only a few people would buy them, but spending four hours of his life to buy 10 hamburgers… is completely ridiculous, not to mention that he will have to go out again in another couple of days to buy more.
The WHO recognizes social distancing as the key to stopping Coronavirus from spreading. It was amazing to see the line outside the La Maravilla bakery, in Alamar, in the first few days; it was long yes, but calm, everybody was keeping the right distance. That didn’t last very long.
People on the street aren’t always aware of the risk and don’t comply with the requirements that have been established, however, many people are confident that Cuba will come out of this a lot better than other countries, that the government is doing a good job of handling the situation.
This feeling of everything being under control is something the government transmits to us, but this time, it doesn’t only depend on government leaders doing a good or bad job, but on us looking after ourselves so we don’t get infected in the middle of the outbreak. It’s the silver lining of this tragedy, that forces us to take others into consideration, to look after ourselves and others; it reminds us of our interdependency.
We have to admit that the government is in a comfortable situation right now, it’s doing the one thing it knows how to do and likes to do: control. After delays in closing the national border, it seems to be listening to people’s complaints a little more or giving into citizen pressure, however you want to see it; another example has been schools closing down after many Cubans spoke out.
Some of the latest measures include a total ban on all flights, including the return of Cuban residents, which is something that shouldn’t be happening I believe. Right now, we don’t know what will happen. Many people would like to be back with their families and they can’t anymore.